Five Tips for Driving Word-of-Mouth -- No Matter What Your Product Is

You Don't Have to Have a Sexy Tech Gadget to Benefit From Buzz

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It's what every marketer wants—boatloads of customers talking about its products, posting detailed reviews online and tweeting about its brand far and wide. And for good reason: Authentic recommendations from a friend or "someone like me" are far more influential than anything a marketer can buy. In a world dominated by social networks, consumer buzz can make a brand stand out amidst the noise and reap real-world profits.

But is there a formula to making a product conversation-worthy? And more importantly, is there a way to keep that conversation going over time?

Wharton School of Business marketing professor Jonah Berger and doctoral student Eric Schwartz took on this challenge with their recent study, "What Drives Immediate and Ongoing Word of Mouth." The study examines the psychological drivers of word-of -mouth for products, based on data from hundreds of BzzAgent social-marketing campaigns. They explore why people talk about products, how product discussions differ online vs. offline and the actions companies can take to generate more product buzz. Here's what they found.

Products Don't Have to Be Interesting
Conventional wisdom holds that consumers will only talk about cool, new products they find interesting, and talk about them in a way that will be beneficial to their social currency. Berger and Schwartz characterize this as online behavior—in digital settings, consumers are more aware of being watched by peers and, therefore, are motivated to post about brands that will be well-received by others. They call this "motivated transmission." (Klout score, anyone?) And yes, the study has a methodology for identifying "interesting" products.

They claim behavior in face-to-face settings is different: It's less about motivated transmission and more about what products are top-of -mind at a given point in time. Interesting products may generate immediate discussion as novelty items, but that fades fast. Simply being interesting doesn't give a product conversation staying power.

The good news for marketers is that the magic of word-of -mouth isn't limited to certain product categories. Under the right circumstances, common products can generate far more consumer discussion.

It's All About Accessibility
The study finds that the biggest driver of discussion is the accessibility of a product. People naturally talk about what they see and what's top-of -mind. The drink in your hand, the package on the table and the makeup on your face may not be as interesting as a shiny new tech device, but they are discussed far more frequently.

Woody Allen was on to something when he said 80% of success is just showing up. The challenge for marketers is to get their products where they can be seen in a natural conversational context or to create visual cues that stimulate discussions.

Connect With Consumers Through Samples
People can't say much about your product if they haven't used it. The study found that product samples generated the greatest increase in discussion. Not because consumers felt a need for reciprocity, but because they must have first-hand experience with the product to understand what it can do.

It takes more than a simple handout at the train station or a trial-size tube in an envelope. You have to connect with people and make the brand come alive with ideas for activities and suggestions for using the product in more creative ways. In its latest shopper-marketing report, the Grocery Marketing Association referred to this as winning both hearts and carts. Coupons and rebates may lead to a product experience, but they are focused on the cart and are a complement, not a substitute, for a sample.

Your Marketing Can Provide Valuable Cues
Through various cues and triggers, marketers can make products more accessible. Branded items such as stickers, hats and T-shirts expose brand messages in natural conversation. While not critical to a social-marketing campaign, they can help. The study associated using branded giveaways in campaigns with a 15% increase in word-of -mouth.

Marketers can also create links that associate common things with their product, especially if the stimuli or usage situation is one that people do not already connect to the brand. Two examples cited in the study are the cues that ducks provide for Aflac, and the cues that the orange color of Halloween provides for Reese's candy. The report also cites a BzzAgent program for Boston Market that helped create a new association for the brand. The restaurant chain, usually associated for many people with lunch, worked with BzzAgent to target specific customer profiles with dinner-related messaging and offers that boosted word-of -mouth by 20%. Countering consumer expectations can be a powerful tool for getting consumers to talk about a brand.

Buzz Can Be for Everyone
Consumer discussion about products isn't a matter of chance. It happens every day to almost every type of product. The good news is that marketers can impact how often, and for how long, their products are the focus of conversation. Go ahead—your customers are waiting for their cue.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Malcolm Faulds is senior VP-marketing of BzzAgent.
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